Switched On Bikes reinvents the wheel

Electric bike firm Switched On Bikes founder Ryan O’Connell talks about engaging with experts to help keep the wheels turning in tough times

Switched On Bikes founder Ryan O’Connell is getting used to being thrown curveballs.

Within his first year of operation, the electric bike (eBike) hire specialist was forced to work out of a temporary shipping container on the Wellington waterfront when the Kaikoura earthquakes damaged the floors of his permanent site.

Then, at the height of the New Zealand summer and the cruise ship season which saw international visitors make up 80 percent of the business, Covid struck.

Yet an ever-resilient Ryan didn’t panic. Instead of locking up his container of eBikes and losing revenue during Lockdown he turned to social media to drum up interest from locals keen to hire bikes when the country shut down.

“We put a notice on Facebook reaching out to locals who have supported us over the years, saying we’ll give them a really good rate, come and grab the bike now and you’ll be helping us out as well.”

Within hours he’d booked out all of his electric bikes, and while Kiwis headed out to enjoy one of the only sanctioned activities they were able to do during Lockdown Ryan got to work on a new business model.

From a sustainability perspective we want people out riding bikes – we have to respond to climate change and biking is a really great way to do that, and it’s fun, it’s practical and it’s fast

“Seeing how quickly those bikes we had available were leased over that four-week duration, I thought wow, maybe long-term leasing could actually form part of our recovery from the lack of international tourism.

“We had always done a small amount of long-term leasing, but it wasn’t our focus – until Covid – so I spent Lockdown developing a revised business model to replace what we were about to lose from international tourism.”

That business model is called Subscribe to Ride, an electric bike subscription that focuses on commuters wanting to get from A to B.

The four-week or 12-week fee options cover everything from servicing, parts replacement, insurance, locks and helmets.

It’s a win-win solution for Switched On Bikes, Wellingtonians and the environment.

“From a sustainability perspective we want people out riding bikes – we have to respond to climate change and biking is a really great way to do that, and it’s fun, it’s practical and it’s fast,” says Ryan.

“One woman who hired a bike just before Lockdown said in the three months she had her bike she’d taken her car out of the garage twice, she absolutely loved her eBike and has since gone on to purchase her own.”

WellingtonNZ support vital

Ryan used Creative HQ’s Thrive Programme to get feedback on his revised business model before putting it into action.

“At that point we were starting to focus on a response to Covid, trying to reimagine what our business would look like without international tourism.

“We wanted some critical eyes on the idea, to put the work I’d done over Lockdown under scrutiny and make sure the product we were wanting to offer was customer-focused.”

Ryan also tapped into WellingtonNZ’s resources and funding.

“Our business growth manager Warren has supported us all the way through, paired us with the right people for help and advice, and the recent Covid and Capability Funding?? we’ve received has been really helpful.

Worried about cashflow, Ryan used Covid funding to help access professional services in the form of Connected Accountants.

“They helped us to work through whether Subscribe to Ride was a good idea, it’s a really different business model to renting out bikes short-term, and tweaking that business model meant we could get everything in order to be able to fund the programme.”

To promote Subscribe to Ride, and through Capability Funding, Ryan was paired with Wellington firm Digital Café, which happened to already hire an eBike long-term for its office.

“For them to know our product well already, it was great to access their expertise to help develop a social media advertising campaign.

“We were running ads already, but they bumped it up a level for us to be able to do it properly and get the most value out of that advertising.”

Today, the wheels of Subscribe to Ride are well-oiled, keeping revenue consistent and the business itself less vulnerable to tourism shocks and the weather.

“Creating this revised business model has been like starting a new business, there was no panic, just a lot of hard work that has created a lot of opportunities for us.”

But there’s another curveball – the boom on bikes post-Lockdown has meant Ryan is having supply chain issues.

“We’re always ready for more curveballs like this, when and as they come, and we are absolutely making the most of the situation.”

Ryan knows tourism will recover at some point, and he’ll be 100 percent ready when it does.

“We’ll be in a stronger position than we were – we have a more resilient business model focusing on locals riding bikes to get from A to B, and we are providing a really fun way to see Wellington.

“People love riding bikes, everyone grew up riding a bike, and Wellington is a beautiful city to be able to take a ride around, with a little assistance at the push of a button.”

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